BWW Reviews: ON GOLDEN POND at the Carrollwood Players

By: Jan. 24, 2015

"We'll remember our years on golden pond...on golden pond...."

It's all about the details. Yes, the bigger picture is what we take home with us, but the details help build that bigger picture. Without them, without being specific, the bigger picture remains fuzzy, unclear, vague. That's why I love the Carrollwood Players, especially shows with Frank Stinehour and James Cass at the helm. With them, it's all about the details (and the bigger picture takes care of itself). For instance, in their recent, winning production of ON GOLDEN POND, I so admired the details. They didn't use some generic book for Swiss Family Robinson (mentioned in the script); they had an ACTUAL copy of Swiss Family Robinson onstage. Same with The Count of Monte Cristo.

And when a newspaper is needed, they don't use the Tampa Bay Times where the front page is hidden; they actually have a newspaper from Maine (where the story takes place). This is a community theatre that dots its I's and crosses its T's. It's a model of what a community theatre should be.

As for the show, ON GOLDEN POND is a heartfelt, sometimes hokey but always entertaining look at old age and undying love. It's a play about reflecting on the past, about regrets, about remembrances. Still, underneath all the memories and nostalgia, it's actually about living in the moment, the now, even though the cottage on golden pond is a relic from a time gone by. Will this be old man Norman's last summer there? The show may be very optimistic, but there's a sadness there too--the sadness of time going by too quickly.

This ON GOLDEN POND is so entertaining that it just flies by. And the cast couldn't be better. If Frank Stinehour is directing, then you know you're in the best hands performance-wise. And the cast owes him a debt of gratitude because they are all beautifully directed.

Rick Kastel is a robust Norman, full of life and perfect timing. It's interesting that his character is from a lost time period where he calls people of color "Negroes" and labels lesbians "a deviant lifestyle." Yet he remains endearing, lovable. And his work with Petra Sussman, as Ethel, is inspired. You have to get the image of Henry Fonda from the iconic movie out of your heads. But once you do, you will find that Mr. Kastel really does a remarkable job, finding new humor and new ways to tackle this meaty role.

As Billy, a boy who spends a summer fishing with Norman, 14-year-old Sebastian Hagelstein gives a delightful performance. He walks in with his AC/DC shirt and we know we are in for a battle of the generations. The snap-crackle timing in his scenes with Norman are beautifully rendered. Billy really connects with Norman without overdoing it. He's still a teen, but he's a real human being as played by Hagelstein. I have seen Hagelstein in shows before--most notably as Theo in Pippin--and this is a young actor to keep on your radar.

As Billy's dad, Eric Misener has one long scene near the end of Act 1 that is so wonderfully uncomfortable that it may be the best bit in the whole show. His larger than life presence as Bill Ray, Noman's daughter's fiancé, brightens the stage, utilizilng the space, peeping through windows, a city guy out of his element. We feel his discomfort and his need to defend his pride. In the movie, Dabney Coleman plays him like a major creep; Mr. Misener is much more likable and we get the feeling that Norman's daughter, Chelsea, has herself a very good catch here, to use a bad fishing pun.

The part of Chelsea is played with just the right amount of hurt and hutzpah by Wendy Davidson. We really feel her childhood scars in a father-daughter relationship that she feels has eluded her. You really sense her wounds as she sees Norman interact lovingly toward Billy....something he never did with her.

Dale Noss as Charlie, the mail carrier, is always a breath of fresh air on the stage. He laughs a lot, but there's a lot of onstage stuff to keep the laughter going.

Best of all is Petra Sussman as Norman's wife. She is so real, so in the moment, I could watch her alone onstage for hours. She is a giving actress, and she connects with each member of the cast. And she's just so incredibly likable. As outrageous as it may sound, I far prefer her to Katherine Hepburn's hammy Oscar-winning turn in the movie from 34 years ago.

I always appreciate Frank Stinehour's program notes that give us a taste of the audition and rehearsal process, and lets us know a little more about each cast members. His obvious love for his actors--as well as for the theatre--are readily apparent when reading his notes.

And then there's James Cass' incredible set. What is there left to say about Mr. Cass' monumental scenic designs? It fills the entire stage; it's incredibly detailed (including a screen door that keeps purposely coming loose and old lake house pictures from Mr. Cass' own life); and it beats the sets of any community theatre in the area (and probably Florida). Actually it's more than just a set; in Mr. Cass' capable hands, it has become a work of art.

The entire production needs to be seen. There's a moment where Ethel slaps Chelsea. In a lesser community theatre, it would be a fake hit and the audience would shrug its collective shoulder. Here, on golden pond, she wallops Chelsea--a real slap to the face--and the audience reacted at the realness of it.

At the packed (sold out) Sunday matinee that I attended, in a key scene, one of the characters falls down with a health issue. An audience member thought the performer was in turmoil and started for the stage to help him, not knowing that it was part of the play. This is what realness is all about. This is what theatre is all about--where the audience cares so much for these characters that they want to physically rush to the stage to help these likable souls. There is no better compliment for this production of ON GOLDEN POND. Don't miss it.

ON GOLDEN POND runs until January 31st. For tickets, please call (813) 265-4000.

Photograph courtesy of Picture This of Palma Ceia.